THE BATTLE OF SINOP, 1853
Russia claimed a crucial victory over its rival during this final ‘Age of Sail’ engagement
The Crimean War was a revolutionary conflict in terms of the evolution of military technology. Although it has since been characterised as taking place exclusively on the Crimean Peninsula, the war was geographically widespread with a significant naval component. Nowhere was this more emphasised than at the Battle of Sinop, which was fought off the northern coast of Turkey.
During the initial stages of the war, Russia initially fought the Ottoman Empire by crossing the River Danube and invading its Balkan territories. The Ottomans declared war on 4 October 1853 while British and French fleets moved up to Constantinople (Istanbul) to guard against any Russian naval attack from Sevastopol. Both countries were not officially at war with Russia at this point but fighting broke out in the Black Sea between Ottoman and Russian ships.
Ottoman convoys were established to provide a supply corridor to its army in Georgia. One of these was commanded by Patrona (Vice Admiral) Osman Pasha but his ships were prevented from sailing by stormy weather. Osman decided to winter at the port of Sinop where his convoy was joined by frigates. The addition of the frigates was important because although the Ottomans wanted to send ships of the line, they had been dissuaded to do so by the British ambassador in Constantinople.
Meanwhile, the Russian Admiral Pavel Nakhimov decided to attack Sinop before the Ottomans could be reinforced with more ships. Osman was aware of the Russian naval presence in the area but Sinop’s harbour had very substantial defences. Nakhimov assembled over 700 cannons in six ships of the line, two frigates and three armed steamers. This force outnumbered the Ottomans’ seven frigates, three corvettes, two steamers and no ships of the line.
The presence of steam ships in both fleets was an important sign of how naval technology had developed during the 19th century. Sailing battleships had ruled the seas for hundreds of years but their end as front line vessels was quickly approaching. Steam-powered warships had already appeared during the Greek War of Independence (1821-29) and had also been used in naval operations on the Syrian coast and in the Adriatic Sea. Wooden sailing ships were the predominant vessels at Sinop, however, there were other signs of industrial progress being made as well.
The Russians were equipped with Paixhans guns – the first naval cannons that could fire explosive shells. Before Sinop, the standard maritime armament was smooth-bored cannons that fired solid cannonballs, shot or shrapnel. Explosive shells already existed on land for howitzers and mortars but the high-powered Paixhans used a delaying mechanism to allow shells to be fired safely in a flat trajectory.
This would have a decisive effect on the outcome of the coming battle.
“BRITAIN AND FRANCE REGARDED THE ATTACK AT SINOP AS UNJUSTIFIED, WHICH INCREASED ANTI-RUSSIAN SENTIMENT IN WESTERN EUROPE”
An explosive ambush
With their numerical superiority in ships and guns, the Russians entered Sinop’s harbour on 30 November 1853 from the northwest in a triangular formation. This trapped the Ottoman convoy between the Russian ships and Sinop’s harbour defences, the latter of which exposed Osman to potential friendly fire. Nakhimov manoeuvred to cover the harbour in interlocking fields of fire by spacing his ships evenly in two lines. The Ottoman ships effectively became sitting targets when the Russians began firing shells.
Fires immediately broke out among the Ottoman vessels, which its panicked sailors found difficult to extinguish. In less than one hour, the Russians comprehensively defeated Osman’s ships, with the majority of them being purposely grounded. In addition, an Ottoman frigate and steamer were sunk and two shore batteries destroyed. Only the 12-gun steamer frigate ‘Taif’ managed to escape the battle while the Russians received repairable damage to just three ships. Almost 3,000 Ottoman sailors were killed and 150 taken prisoner, including Osman. By contrast, just 37 Russians were killed and 229 wounded.
The Russians now had operational control of the Black Sea. Britain and France regarded the attack at Sinop as unjustified, which increased anti-russian sentiment in Western Europe. The battle was eventually used as the Anglo-french justification for declaring war on Russia although the real reason was to curb perceived Russian expansionism.
A depiction of the battle painted by Alexey Bogolyubov (1824-96) who served in the Russian Navy before becoming an artist